Chicks Who Chop: Judith, Salome, and Delilah

By klayperson • ART HISTORY • 4:15 pm

Rubens' Judith with HolofernesChicks Who Chop:
Renaissance Images of Powerful Women
Seen at the Beginning and End of the Twentieth Century

Judith, Salome, and Delilah are linked together throughout art and art history. They are all strong women associated with varying degrees of heroism, deceit, horror, and revenge, but regardless of their individual tales, they are connected by their common ability to overpower men. Judith was the Jewish widow who tricked the Assyrian assailant Holofernes with a display of feminine beauty, and then decapitated him, ensuring victory for the Jews. Her story receives the most attention in the art and art history that is the focus of my paper. However, I would like to always keep in mind how her story is linked with images of other symbolically decapitating women. Delilah betrayed her husband Samson when she accepted money from his enemies to cut off the source of his strength—his hair—which led to his capture and ultimately, death. As a reward for her dance of the seven veils, Salome could request anything she wished from her stepfather Herod; in consultation with her mother Herodias, Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist. Art history tells the stories of other incidents of decapitation. Medusa was the Gorgon of Greek myths with hair of snakes who could turn men to stone by her frightening appearance, until Perseus, aided by the goddess Athena who was inspired by jealousy, was able to confront and decapitate her. David was the biblical young boy who heroically defeated the giant Goliath and decapitated him.
What is the appropriate way to depict these stories? How are images of the first three stories—women overpowering men—different from the latter two—victorious men? How did the men writing circa 1900 see these Renaissance images? How do these depictions fit into the general corpus of Renaissance painting and sculpture, or that of depictions of women, or that of images of strength, power, and betrayal? How do writers in the latter half of the twentieth century look at these images? How and why did the change occur from seeing these images as examples of a single artist’s oeuvre to examples of different perspectives on a single story? As I am writing this paper to examine the thematic concerns of Renaissance art and not the formal variances therein, does this preclude me from treating those formalist art historians from the beginning of the twentieth century in a fair manner? I will attempt, throughout this paper, to understand how the formal and narrative concerns of Renaissance images of powerful women inform and rely on one another.
In 1922, Freud wrote “To decapitate = to castrate,” forever loading these images with undeniable connotations of frightening sexuality. Do the writings that predate this assertion affirm or negate it? All of the artists I discuss are male, as are most of the writers circa 1900. Are they victims of Freud’s idea of castration anxiety, vicariously enacting their fears through the creation and study of these decapitation scenes? Psychoanalyst Karen Horney accounts for this sublimation of fear into creative output in her 1932 article on men’s dread of woman. “…He…tries by every means to deny [his dread of woman] even to himself. This is the purpose of the efforts…to ‘objectify’ it in artistic and scientific creative work. We may conjecture that even his glorification of women has its source not only in the cravings of love, but also in his desire to give the lie to his dread.” In recent years, art historians have analyzed these images using Freudian and feminist techniques. Addressing these findings, I will also try to understand the difference in focus of earlier writing.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Judith, Salome, and Delilah all enjoyed fame and visibility in popular media. Each attracted the attention of the creative spirits of the time. Sarah Bernhardt played Judith on stage and Isadora Duncan danced Salome’s dance of the seven veils to her audiences. The three female protagonists were the subjects of operas at that time: Samson et Dalila was written by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1877, Richard Strauss composed Salome in 1905, and in 1925 Arthur Honegger wrote Judith. Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote two poems about Judith in 1896 and 1904. Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome in 1893, which Aubrey Beardsley illustrated (Fig. 1). Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Gustave Moreau (Fig. 2), and other Symbolist artists painted images of these powerful, man-conquering women. In 1908, at least 24 Salomes were dancing on stage in New York at the same time. These women were impossible to avoid or ignore around the year 1900.
Yet, for the most part, art historians around this time chose not to address the narrative subjects of these characters in their writing. The prominent art historians of the time treated an artist’s body of work as a whole, and in this method, discussed images of Judith and other powerful women as examples to compare with contemporaneous works, usually not as special subjects to compare with other images of the same theme. How did images of these protagonists fit into the scheme of Renaissance art history as these writers organized it?
Berenson writes about specific works of art only as they illustrate a general formal quality displayed by an artist. It is my goal to sift through his writings to single out his attitudes toward strong women such as Judith. Berenson regards women as beautiful, passive objects to behold. When they take on active roles, indicating a more independent spirit than simply adoring the Christ child, for example, they are an anomaly. Confronting these spirited women, Berenson must choose between deprecating or denying their power.
Berenson uses this portrait of a Couple (Fig. 3) to illustrate Lorenzo Lotto’s sense of humor in his painting. He writes that, “One cannot look at the broad, smiling face of the young bridegroom, or at the firm mouth and clever eyes of the young bride, without sharing the amusement of the roguish little Cupid who maliciously holds a yoke suspended over their necks.” Is this true? Can one look at it differently? Berenson continues, “Lotto had studied the psychology of this Bergamask couple too well not to interpret the situation somewhat humorously; and, in fact, a psychological humour of this kind is by no means rare in his works.” Is this a funny image? Berenson goes on to describe another shrewish woman irrationally overpowering those around her. Is Berenson accurate in his description of this couple; is he correctly interpreting Lotto’s painting, or is he revealing his own biases toward marriage and women?
The couple is young and innocent to the trials of marriage. But will her relative determination to his passivity be the source of their troubles, or will it assist their interactions throughout their marriage? To my late twentieth-century feminist mind, her strength will be an advantage in their marriage, and I feel that Berenson overemphasizes the humor of this painting. But perhaps Berenson’s take on the composition is more in keeping with Renaissance ideals than mine. Perhaps I’m guilty of having no sense of humor, as feminists are often accused of. Berenson’s own idea of marriage involved a headstrong, intelligent woman for a wife, and several affairs outside his own marriage. Did he imagine a similar Cupid standing over himself and Mary Berenson? Would she have found this painting so funny?
Berenson more clearly approves of the kind of woman who is beautiful, motherly, sweet, and more easily classifiable as feminine. He speaks of a madonna by Alessio Baldovinetti (Fig. 4) as if she were a living woman with whom he is in love. He refers to the picture as “she” and “her,” forgetting that it is a painting and not a living woman about which he writes. Or does he forget that living women are not just painted images? He speaks of the madonna in the voice of a lovesick suitor. “…I asked myself rather sadly if I should ever have the pleasure of seeing her again, and where.” Berenson is attracted to the woman in the painting because she is “majestic, hieratically majestic, but she is very refined, very delicate: she is neither massive nor monumental.” Here, Berenson reveals his prejudice for women of lofty purposes (the worshipping of a male god, preferably) whose inner strength is tempered by a tranquil and feminine external appearance. He scoffs at the wife in the Couple for revealing her strength which outshines her husband’s. A woman must appear fragile and delicate at all times. But how should a woman look when her situation calls for strength and action?
Looking at Francesco Morone’s painting of Samson and Delilah (Fig. 5) in The North Italian Painters, Berenson ignores the narrative implications of the visual story, and considers only the tranquil style in which it is painted. He writes, “His ‘Samson and Delilah’ at Milan transports one to a world of sweet yearnings, of desires one would not have fulfilled, into a lyric atmosphere which tempers existence as music does.” While this description accounts for the serenity of the composition and beauty of the figures therein, it denies the ambiguity with which Delilah is depicted. With one hand she holds her cloak around the Philistine who cuts Samson’s hair, while she rests her other hand tenderly on Samson’s arm. Her expression reveals nothing—she is neither wicked nor regretful, but she is calm, alert, and aware of her actions—she has the perfect poker face. Berenson ignores Delilah’s duplicitous nature and the imminent defeat of Samson implied in the painting, seeing only the superficial beauty of the figures in this work.
In his 1902 “The Drawings of Andrea Mantegna,” Berenson speaks of Mantegna’s Judith images, preferring the Uffizi drawing (Fig. 6) over the others for both “the specifically artistic effect [and] the presentation of spiritual significance.” He compares this drawing to another image of Judith in the collection of Lord Pembroke, (now in the National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) (Fig. 7) attributed to Mantegna, according to Berenson, dubiously, apparently because of its lower quality. The Pembroke Judith is overworked so that the figures appear to be made of marble, not flesh, lines are overemphasized, and Judith wears a bored, expressionless face, not revealing any of her motives or emotions for the deed depicted in the image. “…Mantegna, if indeed it was he, seems to have forgotten what he had started to do; and has given but a sorry interpretation of his theme. Judith holds the gory head in her hand, but she feels neither hatred nor exultation. She shows the face of Faustina, morose with the lassitude of a disappointing orgie.” In contrast, the Uffizi Judith has both facial and bodily expression appropriate for her situation. “From head to foot her tremulous frame is quivering with loathing; and for disgust her fingers will scarcely touch the hated head.” Berenson praises the technique of the Uffizi Judith over the Pembroke one, admiring its plasticity and chiaroscuro. He quotes Vasari’s accolades of this drawing, to lend credence to his own championing, and to defend his attribution of it, which are, in the end, his two main goals in discussing any art.
Berenson also looks at Mantegna’s Judith in the Dublin Gallery (Fig. 8), ranking it second only to the Uffizi Judith. This one is worked over more painstakingly, thereby losing some of the spontaneity and life-communicating quality of the Uffizi Judith, but nevertheless, it remains a masterpiece of composition to Berenson. A female critic in 1906 regarding this image sees “a grave majesty in the figure of Judith.…A look of restrained sorrow alone fills her eyes, tempered perhaps with something of contempt.” Berenson’s psychological reading of Judith in this image is enigmatic. “No fierce rebound from stifling oppression is depicted here, but the self-pity and lassitude of one tasting the futility of revenge, and foreseeing further wrongs.” How is Judith’s revenge futile? And of what further wrongs is he thinking? By decapitating Holofernes and bringing his head back to her city of Bethulia, Judith ensures the survival and victory of the Jews. Her action was anything but futile. And the Book of Judith speaks of the peace that followed Judith’s deed for generations thereafter. Is Berenson speaking of later modern attacks on Jewish people? Keep in mind, this text is written in 1902, predating the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Is Berenson thinking of further wrongs of women? But Judith’s actions are justifiable, admirable, and heroic—she has not acted wrongly. Are the thoughts Berenson discerns in the Dublin Judith hers, Mantegna’s, or his own?
Berenson does consider the Judith story to be a “great theme,” and admires Mantegna’s choice to repeatedly depict the narrative at the moment after she has decapitated Holofernes when “at last, after such tension, her fever-strung nerves relax, and she gives way to her pent-up feelings.” But he neglects discussion of Mantegna’s other images of the Judith and Holofernes story. Mantegna returned to the Judith theme at least seven times, as registered in Paul Kristeller’s 1901 monograph on the artist. In some of these images, Mantegna chose a different moment of the narrative to illustrate, such as Judith showing the head of Holofernes to the people of Bethulia.
How does it aid Berenson’s thesis to limit his scope of attention to Mantegna’s Judith theme to those immediately following the decapitation? In these scenes, Judith is displaying herself to the viewer without being otherwise engaged in any important activity. We do not see her in the gruesome act of cutting off Holofernes’ head, nor do we see the bloody aftermath of her action. These images show the beautiful and pious Judith, who despite the sword she carries, does not seem to possess enough physical strength to cut through the flesh and bones of a large man. Her deed is sterilized and prettied, in keeping with feminine decorum. In Berenson’s favorite Uffizi drawing, Judith raises the pinkie on the hand that holds Holofernes’ head in a dainty, ladylike manner, showing that despite her actions to the contrary, Judith has delicate, feminine sensibilities. How reassuring that this extraordinarily powerful woman does not seem to be the type who would repeat her actions on any other unsuspecting man.
In his monograph on Mantegna, Kristeller only discusses Mantegna’s Judiths in passing, to briefly discuss their provenance and rank them against one another in formal terms. His book illustrates numerous Judiths, which Kristeller describes in a few sentences, and sums up by saying, “The subject in any case occupied him greatly, and moved him to a whole series of different sketches, which are preserved in contemporary copies or engravings.” Why doesn’t this important theme in Mantegna’s work hold greater concern for his biographer? Kristeller refers to these paintings as “decorative” or “ornamental,” devaluing them in the scope of Mantegna’s oeuvre.
Although the stories of Judith and David are linked both iconographically and thematically, Kristeller separates Mantegna’s Judiths and Davids. He considers Judith an allegorical picture, while David is a religious subject (Fig. 9). What is the basis for his separation? Jewish art consistently portrays Judith as a heroic protagonist associated with other heroes of the religion. She is the feminine counterpart to David, who also cut off his enemy’s head, and it follows that imagery of the two of them would display certain similarities. In Jewish art, Judith is not only associated with David because of obvious parallels in their stories, but also with other Jewish heroes such as Samson. However, Christian art of the Renaissance and thereafter often ignores Judith’s heroic qualities and confuses her iconography with that of the villainous temptress Salome. Panofsky goes to great lengths to differentiate between the iconography of Judith and Salome. Through a careful study of images too complicated to relate here, he concludes that there is a fixed association of visual types that indicates whether the image of a woman with the head of a man is Judith or Salome. However, written accounts of these visual images easily conflates the two female characters. Therefore, it is the literary and not the visual sources which stem confusion as to Judith as a hero or as a sinful woman. By separating Judith and David, Kristeller propagates the anti-heroic idea of Judith.
On the other hand, Kristeller includes Judith in the same chapter as Delilah, whose stories he compares (Fig. 10). Quoting the inscription on the tree in the Samson and Delilah piece, which translates as, “a bad woman is three times worse than the devil,” Kristeller writes, “Just as Donatello’s statue of Judith in Florence (Fig. 11) could become the token of the people’s freedom, so has the betrayal of Samson by Delila been taken as symbol of the power of female cunning over the physical and intellectual force of man.” Notwithstanding the fact that nowhere in the story of Samson and Delilah is there any mention of Samson’s intellectual force, I question how Kristeller sees these examples as parallel. This is the first time Donatello’s Judith is mentioned—it was not a point of comparison earlier in Kristeller’s writing to which to return. This pointed contrast and bringing in another artist’s work with no apparent influence on Mantegna is a curious way to elevate the status of Mantegna’s small painting to the monumentality of Donatello’s prominent sculpture. If he had simply wished to compare the Judith and Delilah stories, Kristeller could have chosen any of Mantegna’s own Judith images to discuss. But Kristeller was interested in the public significance of Donatello’s Judith, and likens it to Delilah’s metaphorical impact. Although Kristeller gives Mantegna’s Delilah more attention than Berenson, who felt that this work had “nothing new to teach us,” he leaves his comments open for interpretation.
Looking back on the subject of Delilah in 1972, Madlyn Millner Kahr studies Mantegna’s Delilah again to fill out the understanding of this painting. She suggests that “the vine that twines around the tree may symbolize the lethal woman, while the amputated limb of the tree may relate to the symbolic castration that Samson is undergoing at the hands of Delilah. Furthermore, the grapes indicate Samson’s drinking alcohol before Delilah had his hair cut, and Kahr considers the image to represent the vice Luxuria. Which, in light of Edgar Wind’s article of 1937 and H. W. Janson’s book of 1957 on Donatello, indicates a solid reason to compare this image to Donatello’s Judith. Both of these studies of Donatello’s Judith assert that Holofernes represents Luxuria and Judith signifies Humilitas, as confirmed by the bacchanalian imagery on the sculpture’s base and by the metaphoric implications as a symbol of the politics of Florence. So, in both of these images, the artist has depicted a woman who is able to conquer a strong man because she tricked him into trusting her and making himself vulnerable with drunkenness. These works both serve to moralize against Luxuria, although in the case of Delilah, the woman is responsible for corrupting her male counterpart, whereas in the case of Judith, she conquers the corruption of the man she is with.
Donatello’s Judith has its own history of placement and replacement with other sculptures of male-female interactions. Its earliest recorded location was in the Medici garden in Florence, where it stood until it was seized by the operai in 1495 and placed in prominent display on the ringhiera in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1504, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David (Fig. 12) took Judith’s position. At the time, Francesco di Lorenzo Filarete, the herald of the Signoria, suggested this substitution because “the Judith is a deadly symbol (segno mortifero) and does not befit us whose insignia are the cross and the lily, nor is it good to have a woman kill a man…” Thus, the sculpture of a woman decapitating a man was replaced by a man decapitating a man. Judith was eventually moved to another corner of the Piazza de Signori, in the right-hand arch of the Loggia dei Lanzi. In 1554, these two decapitation scenes were joined by Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa (Fig. 13), a man decapitating a woman, which was placed in the left-hand arch of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Judith was moved to a different arch in the Loggia dei Lanzi in 1582 when it was displaced by Giovanni Bologna Rape of the Sabines (Fig. 14).At this point, the Loggia contained three powerful sculptures of gender relations: Judith is a woman overpowering a man, Perseus is a man overpowering a woman, and the Sabines are women overpowered by men. Meanwhile on the Piazza, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, are sculptures of male interactions: Michelangelo’s David, and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. Judith, the only powerful woman in this group of sculptures, was repeatedly displaced and subordinated by portrayals of conquering men (Fig. 15).
Addressing the imagery of Judith from a moralizing, religious perspective, Ruskin was another art historian circa 1900 who downplayed the strength of women portrayed in art, even when necessitated by their narrative circumstances. For Ruskin, Renaissance art is thematically organized according to its compliance with the Christian canon. Therefore, when he looks at a work of art, he considers it not only how it fits in with an artist’s oeuvre, but how it effectively expresses Christian devotion as he understands it. Ruskin’s discussion of Botticelli’s Judith (Fig. 16) offers a description which is respectful to the story of Judith, concerned with her personality and motives more than her action. He claims to base his assessment of the painting on careful reading of the Book of Judith, and advises his readers to do their homework so that they too will be informed viewers, and thus will undoubtedly reach the same conclusions as he. Not only should Ruskin’s audience read the Book of Judith, but they are assigned to copy out in their own handwriting pertinent verses from the story. Ruskin wants no confusion about the meaning of the story and its heroine.
Ruskin writes that “…at first glance—you will think the figure merely a piece of fifteenth-century affectation. ‘Judith, indeed!—say rather the daughter of Herodias, at her mincingnest.’” He goes on to correct this initial reaction to Judith. “…There is somewhat more to be thought of and pictured in Judith, than painters have mostly found it in them to show you: that she is not merely the Jewish Delilah to the Assyrian Samson; but the mightiest, purest, brightest type of high passion in severe womanhood offered to our human memory. Sandro’s picture is but slight; but it is true to her, and the only one I know that is; and … you will see why he gives her that swift, peaceful motion, while you read in her face only sweet solemnity of dreaming thought.” But I question why it is appropriate that Judith should look sweet and dreamy, and, how does Botticelli’s Judith have such a significantly different expression than, for example, Mantegna’s Pembroke Judith?
Ruskin offhandedly notes, while I call attention to the fact that he found this painting just under an image of Medusa, which he takes to be by Leonardo. Is the placement of these images of powerful women significant or just chance? Within the space of three pages, Ruskin conflates an image of Judith with Medusa, Salome, and Delilah. In his standard biography of Botticelli, Horne likewise conflates this image of Judith with Salome. In speaking of influences, Horne writes that this Judith less resembles the style of Fra Filippo, and is more similar to the figures of Pollaiuolo’s tapestries. But the figure he chooses to compare Judith to is Salome, “not only in attitude, but in the whole conception of the form, proportions, and movement of the tall, alert figure…” I am willing to accept Horne’s formal comparison, but how could a Judith bear any resemblance to a Salome “in attitude?” The two women have completely antithetical attitudes—one is a hero and the other a villain. Is it that the imagery is similar, or the perception of the art historian?
For Ruskin, Botticelli’s Judith is the only acceptable presentation of a decapitating woman—the only one who looks pious and feminine, palatable to fragile masculine sensibilities. While her drapery is fluttering and “affected,” revealing to Ruskin Botticelli’s weak nature, her face displays all that is virtuous in Botticelli. Her facial expression of passive beauty compensates for the evidence of her deed and for her lascivious costume. Had her face revealed repulsion, fright, relief, nervousness, victory, or any other emotion expected of a woman in her situation, would Ruskin have admired her so much? Her expressionless visage keeps her securely in place as an unchallenging, unthinking feminine creature. Ruskin emphasizes his preference to disempower and objectify this powerful woman when he writes that she is “the idea of Jewish womanhood…grand and real as a marble statue,—possession for all ages.” Ruskin never mentions the image of Holofernes’ decapitated body (Fig. 17), evidence of Judith’s violence, painted on the reverse of this work. What Ruskin admires in Judith is that she is a beautiful object of art, not that she represents a real woman.
In Berenson’s appraisal of Botticelli’s painting, the use of line is more significant and expressive than any attempt at depicting facial expression. Berenson disagrees with Ruskin that Botticelli would have even been concerned with the subject of a painting, much less aim to portray emotions expressive of anything other than formal artistic communication. “In fact, the mere subject, and even representation in general, was so indifferent to Botticelli, that he appears almost as if haunted by the idea of communicating unembodied values of touch and movement.” Berenson holds that Botticelli’s attention to representative expression was equally unimportant in fanciful, religious, political, and allegorical images. While not specifically addressing Botticelli’s Judith as an example, Berenson would certainly maintain that Judith’s facial expression is less significant than the lines and forms of the figures, drapery, and hair in the image.
Warburg synthesizes Ruskin’s and Berenson’s opinions of Botticelli, along with a history of the portrayals of women in art, to reach another understanding of this figure. Looking at her expressive qualities both formally and as representing a specific narrative, Warburg understands Judith to be a Christian interpretation of a pagan theme. Her fluttering drapery identifies Judith as a member of a group of women throughout visual history that Warburg classifies as the Nympha or maenad (Fig. 18). His fascination with the Nympha archetype begins with an examination of the servant woman in Ghirlandaio’s Birth of St. John the Baptist (Figs. 19, 20). In his correspondence with Dutch scholar Jolles, Warburg describes his interest in this figure and other figures like her. From their first study on this character, Warburg and Jolles associate her with the type of powerful woman in art history who resists easily classifiable femininity. Jolles fantasizes about her in a letter to Warburg. “Enough, I lost my heart to her and in the days of preoccupation which followed I saw her everywhere…In many of the works of art I had always liked, I discovered something of my Nymph. My condition was between a bad dream and a fairy tale.…Sometimes she was Salome dancing with her death-dealing charm in front of the licentious tetrarch; sometimes she was Judith carrying proudly and triumphantly with a gay step the head of the murdered commander…” The female servant could be a precursor to Salome, visiting St. John the Baptist at his birth with a charger on top of her head rather than carrying his head on a charger at his death.
With these associations, Warburg attempts to contextualize images of the Nympha into a cultural background conducive to the visualization of such elusive and frenetic femininity. He suggests that Ghirlandaio’s servant, or Botticelli’s Judith, or any such image of a woman in motion, is a Christianized revision of the pagan maenad. She is the frenzied “head-hunter” controlled and sublimated by the Christian male mind into harmless femininity, by dressing her otherwise eroticized body in flowing drapery or, as in some of Mantegna’s Judiths, by painting her in grisaille. The idea of a powerful woman is strong enough to pervade visual imagery throughout art history, but threatening enough for artists to develop these tactics to keep her power under control. Artists objectify and contain these frightening women within their art.
In images such as Mantegna’s Dublin Judith, the artist harnesses his anxiety with the subject matter by thoroughly objectifying it. The strength of pagan forces, the fascination with the maenad figure, is pervasive and beckoning, yet at the same time, threatening and taboo. Through the use of grisaille, the artist denies any semblance of reality in the art work, and reinforces and reassures that the painting is in fact just a man-made object.
Gombrich elucidates Warburg’s understanding of this artistic dilemma. “Unless the artist handles these ‘memories’ with care and keeps them at a safe distance, he will be overpowered by the intense life they radiate. One way in which Renaissance artists kept these dangerous charges in the proper sphere was through the use of grisaille, the deliberate detachment of the classical quotation from realistic evocation. By tempering any imminent threat of these strong women through the denial of their humanness, artists such as Mantegna could Christianize and moralize the subject of feminine power. For, in these cases, it is not a woman who conquers a man, but a work of art demonstrating religious devotion. The maenad is not in the act of frenzied murder, but is a static sculpturesque form frozen in her male-designed pose.
Warburg identifies these maenads by their characteristic drapery. Generally, nakedness in art is used as a sign of passive beauty, as in typical images of Venus, or as a display of physical strength, as in common depictions of David. How, then, would a strong woman’s nude body look? Artists wrap these nude female bodies in especially stylized clothing, thereby solving/avoiding this seeming paradox.
Addressing Warburg’s thoughts on power and nudity in art, Gombrich writes, “They showed the agony and the passion of man in all its fascinating and fearful nakedness. That same nakedness was experienced as beauty in the liberated gods returning from their transformation into monstrous demons; yet it was also a threat in the images of frenzy and aggression.” This statement suggests that men may be depicted nude to show their heroic passion or fortitude. But when coupled with images of frenzy and aggression, adjectives Warburg consistently applies to his maenads and Nymphas, nudity poses a threat. Hence, these “head-hunting women” are clothed, but their drapery is unstable, blowing in some imaginary wind, emphasizing the threatening nudity of their bodies beneath their clothes.
Gombrich continues to discuss Warburg’s idea of the fearful nakedness in images of frenzy and aggression. “We have seen that the idea of this threat was identified in Warburg’s mind with certain motifs. The emphasis on the ‘head-hunting woman’ reveals the subsoil of fear that underlies Warburg’s fascination with the ‘Nympha,’ but the same ambivalence…may also account for his identification with Perseus, the hero who brandishes the head of Medusa.” Here we have an art historian who is fascinated with and afraid of the decapitating female character in art, and identifies with and heroicizes the male figure who is able to decapitate such a woman. His stance on the issue is rather more clearly presented than those of other art historians circa 1900 I have discussed, but in the end, I believe that their goals are all similar. Berenson, Kristeller, Ruskin, Horne, and Warburg alike are disturbed by the power possessed by female characters like Judith, as are the male artists who depicted them, and therefore they seek, with visual or verbal tools, to disempower these women.
I would like to return now to my earlier question as to whether or not Freudian theories could be demonstrated or revealed in the writings of art historians around the year 1900, even though they themselves were not yet exposed to Freudian psychoanalysis. I hope that I have pointed to areas in the writings of this largely formalist group of art historians which indicates that issues of gender and sexuality were significant factors in what they chose to address and avoid in their studies. For example, discussions of Salome circa 1900 are limited to the most brief analyses of Renaissance works. And yet, the idea of Salome was raised in conjunction with so many images of other strong women, as I demonstrated in my essay. Indeed, how could these art historians avoid the subject of Salome at this time, with imagery of her surrounding them throughout popular media? Why was Salome a safe subject for popular culture around the year 1900, but not academic inquiry?
Art historians since the theories of Freud and his followers became widely known have looked at the art of the Renaissance with new objectives. Mary Garrard reads the history of depictions of Judith as masculine objectification of feminine power, as opposed to the Judith paintings by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi, which she understands to be differently constructed so as to empower the female protagonists in the image. Madlyn Millner Kahr reinterprets imagery of Delilah as revealing the male fear of castration in her article, which is, incidentally, reprinted in a book on feminist art history co-edited by Garrard. Laurie Schneider’s considerations of images of decapitation utilize Freudian techniques to explain masculine anxieties and erotic interests implicit in these works. Her articles have engendered much response, and have been printed in a journal established by Sigmund Freud himself. Perhaps not coincidentally, these writers who reconsider images of strong women using psychoanalytic and feminist theories are themselves women.
So, I will now attempt to summarize the historiography I have established, beginning around the year 1900. First, we see a group of male art historians writing about male artists, carefully choosing how and what to write about portrayals of women. Then, Freud, who is male, and his followers, particularly Horney, who is female, discuss sexuality and sublimation to arguably account for the masculine inspiration of these images. Following, a group of female art historians reinterpret images of women as done by mostly male artists to determine attitudes revealed about gender roles. I am last in line, a female art historian discussing male art historians who write about male artists depicting women. It is my hope that this process has not only clarified our understanding of these images, but more importantly, that I have explained certain ways in which we have come to understand these images the way we do.


Barb, A. A. “Diva Matrix: A faked gnostic intaglio in the possession of P. P. Rubens and the iconology of a symbol.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16, nos. 3–4, (1953): 193–238. Studies the imagery of the decapitated Medusa head as a symbol of the mother goddess.

Barelli, Emma. “Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes: An Extreme Moral Instance: A ‘Response’ to Laurie Schneider’s Article (G.B.A., Feb. 1976).” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (October 1978): 147–48. Sees a connection in the attitudes of Judith and Holofernes. Argues that Donatello’s Judith acts out of lustful passion; she is not the purely devout and chaste woman commonly deemed appropriate for the subject.

Berenson, Bernard. The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. London, Phaidon Publishers, Inc., 1952, 1953. First published between 1894–1907. Describes artists’ styles as they fit a personality, not a painting. Therefore, an entry on any given artist contains generalizations about how the artist achieves form, composition, expressiveness, and the like, but rarely uses particular works of art as examples to analyze.

———. Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism. London: George Bell and Sons, 1901. This monograph reveals Berenson’s own biases regarding representation of women in art.

———. The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. Second Series. London: George Bell and Sons, 1902. Contains essays on Mantegna’s Judith drawings and on Alessio Baldovinetti’s Madonna.

Bergmann, Martin S. “Love That Follows upon Murder in Works of Art.” American Imago 33, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 98–101. Addresses the difference in the homoerotic nature of the David story as opposed to the heterosexual eroticism in the Judith story.

The Book of Judith. From the Bible Apocrypha. Tells the story of Judith saving the Jewish people by deceiving the leader of their assailants with a false show of feminine charm.

Duncan, Ellen. “The National Gallery of Ireland.” The Burlington Magazine 10 (October 1906–March 1907): 7–23. Discusses masterpieces of the collection, including Mantegna’s Judith and Holofernes. Considers Judith’s expression to be superb.

Freud, Sigmund. “Medusa’s Head” [1922]. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 18. Translated and edited by James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 273–74. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. Considers the image of Medusa, and in general, all images of decapitation, to represent the male fear of castration.

Friedman, Mira. “The Metamorphoses of Judith.” Jewish Art, 1987. Judith is always depicted heroically in Jewish art, but when transformed into a subject of Christian art, her iconography is confused with that of Salome, and she becomes one of many sinful women in art.

Frizzoni, Gustavo. “Certain Studies by Cesare da Sesto in Relation to His Pictures.” The Burlington Magazine 26, nos. 139–144 (October 1914–March 1915): 187–94. Discusses drawings of Judith and Holofernes, Herodias and John the Baptist, and David and Goliath.

Fry, Roger. “Aubrey Beardsley’s Drawings.” Anthenæum, 1904. Reprinted in Vision and Design. New York: Meridian Books, 1956. Originally published 1920. Describes Beardsley’s Salome illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play. Sees the influence of Pollaiuolo for his use of line and Mantegna for his depictions of depravity. Calls Beardsley the “Fra Angelico of Satanism.”

———. “Exhibition of Old masters at the Grafton Galleries—II.” The Burlington Magazine 20 (October 1911–March 1912): 161–67. Examines a Judith and Holofernes for compositional and detail qualities to ascertain its attribution to Titian.

———. “Giotto.” Monthly Review, 1901. Reprinted in Vision and Design. New York: Meridian Books, 1956. Originally published 1920. Addresses the formal and expressive qualities in Giotto’s painting. Considers the psychological expression in Giotto’s Salome.

———. “On a Painting by Antonio da Solario.” The Burlington Magazine 7 (April–September 1905): 75–76. Attributes a painting of the head of John the Baptist to Antonio da Solario, a previously unknown artist. Addresses the lack of skill with which the painting was rendered; not the subject of the work.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. Chapter on Judith gives a feminist reading of the Judith narrative in visual art from the Medieval through the Baroque period.

Gombrich, E. H. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography. London: The Warburg Institute, 1970. Addresses Warburg’s study of the Nympha motif throughout art history, of which Judith, Salome, and Delilah fall into the category. Also speaks of Warburg’s fascination with the Perseus legend. Unlike his contemporaries who are concerned with the stylistic, formal, and individual qualities about art and artists, Warburg looks at art as indicators of an entire culture.

Hill, G. F. “The Whitcombe Greene Plaquettes.” The Burlington Magazine 30, nos. 166–71 (January–June 1917): 103–10. Studies a plaquette of Judith derived from Mantegna’s paintings of the subject.

Horne, Herbert P. Botticelli: Painter of Florence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. Originally published as Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence. George Bell and Sons, 1908. Gives formal descriptions of Botticelli’s Judith paintings. Propounds that these paintings are influenced by Pollaiuolo’s tapestries of Salome. Ranks Botticelli’s paintings according to their inventiveness, linear qualities, and composition.

Horney, Karen. “The Dread of Woman: Observations on a Specific Difference in the Dread Felt by Men and by Women Respectively for the Opposite Sex.” The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 13, part 3 (July 1932): 348–60. Explains the recurrence of man-conquering women in art as evidence of men controlling their dread of women by objectifying it.

Janson, H. W. The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. The section on Donatello’s Judith reveals the statue as a symbol of civic pride, an object of political metaphor for republics prevailing over monarchies. Includes sources of the first writings on this sculpture. Janson also writes on Donatello’s Feast of Herod, speaking of it as an demonstration of spatial and perspectival rendering.

Kahr, Madlyn Millner. “Delilah.” In Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, 119–45. New York: Harper and Row, 1982. Originally published in The Art Bulletin 54, September 1972, 282–99. Studies why the betrayal of Samson by Delilah is a favorite subject in Renaissance art. Using Freudian techniques, analyzes how Delilah embodies the male fear of castration.

Kleinschmidt, Hans J. “Discussion of Laurie Schneider’s Paper.” American Imago 33, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 92–97. Considers the viability of castration anxiety being inherent in images of decapitation. As an outsider to art history (Kleinschmidt is a medical doctor), he recognizes his own interest in art stemming from subject rather than form.

Kristeller, Paul. Andrea Mantegna. Translated by S. Arthur Strong. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1901. Includes images of Samson and Delilah and Judith and Holofernes in chapter on mythological and allegorical pictures, although they represent biblical stories. Gives only cursory attention to Mantegna’s numerous Judith paintings.

Lightbown, Ronald. Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989. Examines Botticelli’s Judith paintings.

Lippmann, F. W. “A Bronze Statuette Attributed to Benvenuto Cellini.” The Burlington Magazine 16 (October 1909–March 1910): 40. Attributes a sculpture of Minerva to Cellini on the basis of comparison to his Perseus.

Loeser, Charles. “Minerva Bronze Attributed to Cellini.” The Burlington Magazine 16 (October 1909–March 1910): 165. Attempts to re-attribute a sculpture of Minerva (see article by Lippmann) to Jacopo Sansovino.

Looper, Matthew G. “Political Messages in the Medici Palace Gardens.” In press, Journal of Garden History. Describes the original placement of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, and its implications in Florentine politics.

Martineau, Jane, editor. Andrea Mantegna. London: Royal Academy of Arts, and New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Comprehensive and most recent catalog of Mantegna’s work.

Miller, Heidi. “Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (1456–1457): Expression and Reception.” Unpublished paper. Gives a history of the sculptures placement and reception in Florence.

Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes In the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Harper and Row, 1939, 1972. Addresses the conflation of images of Judith and Salome in Christian art. Determines that the sword is solely an attribute of Judith, but that the charger may be used for Judith as well as Salome.

Pressly, Nancy L. Salome: La belle dame sans merci. San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Museum Association, 1983. Discusses the history of representations of Salome in art, primarily focusing on the turn of the twentieth century.

Purdie, Edna. The Story of Judith in German and English Literature. Paris: Librarie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1927. Traces the theme of Judith throughout literary history and questions why the subject is both popular and pervading.

Ruskin, John. Mornings in Florence: Being Simple Studies of Christian Art for English Travellers. Fourth Edition. London: George Allen, Sunnyside, Orpington, 1894. This book primarily is concerned with describing and explaining the expressive qualities of Giotto’s work. In addition, Ruskin spends considerable time discussing Botticelli’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, which he considers to be the most accurate representations of Judith’s character.

Samuels, Ernest, with the collaboration of Jayne Newcomer Samuels. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. This biography of Berenson accounts for some of his attitudes regarding women that are manifested in his writing.

Schleif, Corine. “The Roles of Women in Challenging the Canon of ‘Great Master’ Art History.” Unpublished paper, 1995. Describes the patriarchal structure of the standard art history, and how women have interjected their concerns into that pre-organized context. Calls for a reworking of the narrative of the story of Renaissance art history, but offers no alternatives.

Schneider, Laurie. “Donatello and Caravaggio: The Iconography of Decapitation.” American Imago 33, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 76–91. Discusses the homoerotic qualities found in images of men decapitating men—Donatello’s and Caravaggio’s Davids.

———. “Some Neoplatonic Elements in Donatello’s Gattamelata and Judith and Holofernes.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (February 1976): 41–48. Considers both of Donatello’s sculptures as protectors of their cities. The decapitated Medusa head depicted on the Gattamelata’s armor offers a classical idea of protection, and is conflated with the iconography of Eros. She reads Judith and Holofernes as a metaphor of humility conquering extravagance, or the city republic defeating monarchy. Associates Bacchanalian references on pedestal with the downfall of Holoferne , and by association, that of tyrannical government.

Shearman, John. Only Connect…: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Analyzes the reception of Cellini’s Perseus and its placement in Florence as a replacement of other sculptures of decapitation or male-female interactions.

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. Translated by Lord Alfred Douglas. New York: Dover Publications, 1967. Originally published 1894. This one-act play and illustrations by two of the most renowned creative spirits of the time represent the extreme popularity of the subject circa 1900.

Wind, Edgar. “Donatello’s Judith: A Symbol of ‘Sanctimonia.’” Journal of the Warburg Institute 1, no. 1 (1937): 62–63. Associates Judith with Humilitas and Holofernes with Luxuria and Superbia.


1. Aubrey Beardsley, Design from “the Studio”—The Climax, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome

2. Gustave Moreau, The Apparition (Dance of Salome), Fogg Art Museum, Boston

3. Lorenzo Lotto, Messer Marsilio and His Bride, Prado, Madrid

4. Alessio Baldovinetti, Madonna and Child, Louvre, Paris

5. Francesco Morone, Samson and Delilah, Poldi-Pezzoli Museum, Milan

6. Andrea Mantegna, Judith and Holofernes, Uffizi, Florence

7. Andrea Mantegna, Judith and Holofernes, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

8. Andrea Mantegna, Judith and Holofernes, National Gallery, Dublin

9. Andrea Mantegna, David and Goliath

10. Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, National Gallery, London

11. Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

12. Michelangelo, David (copy), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

13. Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus and Medusa, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

14. Giovanni Bologna, The Rape of the Sabine Woman, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

15. David, Perseus, and Hercules and Cacus, view from the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

16. Sandro Botticelli, Judith and Holofernes, Uffizi, Florence

17. Sandro Botticelli, Holofernes Found Dead in his Tent, Uffizi, Florence

18. Aby Warburg, screen depicting images of the “Nympha”

19. Ghirlandaio, Birth of St. John the Baptist, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

20. Ghirlandaio, Birth of St. John the Baptist, detail of servant “Nympha,” Santa Maria Novella, Florence

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